A Biography of Henry Salt

A Biography of Henry Salt

THE publication of a life of Henry Salt will be welcomed by supporters of the vegetarian cause, as by all humanitarians, as an important event and a recognition due to an original and independent thinker who devoted his whole life to humanitarianism in all its aspects.

The book (Salt and his Circle, Hutchinson, 16/-) is written by Stephen Winsten, and its production fittingly marks the centenary of Salt's birth in 1851. It includes a characteristically frank essay on Salt in the form of a preface by G.B.S., the last thing he wrote—completed the day before he met with the accident which resulted in his death—and a no less frank memoir of Shaw by Salt intended for publication after Shaw’s death, but actually, in circumstances related by Mr. Winsten in his book, read and “corrected” by Shaw. These notes on one another by two fine old men, Shaw the dramatist and Salt the undramatic realist, who undoubtedly held a warm and lasting affection for each other, provide touching as well as diverting reading. Of Shaw's, wherein is the admission “My memory is not too good,” it must be stated that, although delightfully Shavian, it is wildly incorrect as regards facts and mischievous as regards choice of points for emphasis. It ends with the words, “Salt was original and in his way unique.” Salt's note ends with a quotation from his own verses printed in The Times on the occasion of Shaw’s seventieth birthday, wherein, having praised Shaw’s many qualities, he concludes:'

“All these: but most that wit so keen
Could flash from heart so kind.”

In attempting to understand and portray the life of any noteworthy character, there is a natural inclination to over-simplify by selecting a salient feature and presenting this as the whole man, and in stating that the outstanding feature of Salt’s character was his rejection of the privileges conferred on him by birth and station, and his refusal to live by the avoidable exploitation of any being, human or sub-human, this reservation must be borne in mind. There is little doubt, however, that this was the feature Shaw had in mind when he said, “Salt was original and in his way unique.” Certainly Salt was born to privilege; his father colonel in the Indian Army; his mother of indubitably upper class origin, very conscious of her social status; everything, in fact, “county,” and in order. Dedicated from birth by his-parents to Eton, he was coached by Dr. Kegan Paul and duly entered that citadel of Victorian respectability where, it must be added, he enjoyed life immensely, taking to the classics like a duck to water, spending a vacation coaching a pupil at a bishop’s palace, and excelling at Swimming and the Eton game Fives, concerning which Mr. Winsten wittily observes, “Eton went on an fours to a good Fives player.” For Eton Henry retained the liveliest affection and interest to the end of his days. Thence to King's College, Cambridge, where, without cramming too strenuously, he took fifth place in the classical tripos of 1875 and won a gold medal for Greek Epigram.

As a result of this success and indicating that he was regarded in academic circles as a promising scholar, he was offered, and accepted, a mastership at his old school, Eton, a post he held for the succeeding nine years. In this period he married a kindred spirit, Kate Joynes, the gifted and accomplished daughter of a senior Eton master.

So all seemed set for a fair voyage on the flood tide of Victorian prosperity, with good prospects of making port in some comfortable headmastership. But, alas! the gallant barque that had set sail with such bright promise grounded on the shallows of new ideas, and this, of all places, at Eton, that had heard no news since the battle of Waterloo, which, of course, was won on its playing fields! Henry and Kate became Socialists! and, horror upon horror, vegetarians! Eton could hold them no longer, so he resigned his post and they settled down to live the simple life on a meagre income in a cottage in Surrey, which simple life Henry lived for the rest of his days. Time, however, has its revenges. Salt throughout his life was repeatedly sought out by old Etonians who had come round to his way of thinking. A headmaster of Eton, Dr. Lyttleton, became an avowed and enthusiastic vegetarian, and a number of Etonians have figured as Cabinet Ministers in Socialist Governments.

Salt was, more than anything else, a man of letters. From leaving Eton at the age of 33, he applied himself to authorship, producing, as is shown by the bibliography printed at the end of Mr. Winsten's book, a formidable array of major works, as well as a mass of articles contributed to newspapers and periodicals on the various movements for humane reform to which he devoted his life—Socialism, Penal Reform, Pacifism, Vegetarianism, Anti-Vivisection, the protest against Cruel Sports and the general assertion of Animals’ Rights.

He wrote excellent biographies of his two favourite authors, Shelley and Thoreau, each a danger to the self-assured society to which Salt was born, and both liable, as H. M. Stanley, the explorer, remarked of Shelley in conversation with Salt, “to swamp you all for a bit.” Another work is Seventy Years Among Savages, which sounds as if it might be a treatise on anthropology, but, as a critic wrote, “The savages, gentle reader, are you and I.” Of his book, Company I Have Kept, Salt once slyly remarked that, “Bad Company I Have Kept might have been a more apt title.” The adjective would have covered some very notable people, for amongst the company he kept Shaw and Carpenter figured very prominently over a period of half a century, and we may note in passing that the combined ages of these three vegetarians exceeded two hundred and fifty years.

It is an arresting reflection that most original thinkers pondering the question whether life need be as bad as it is and in what respects it might be mended, have found the use by humans of other animals as food an unavoidable challenge, and have become vegetarians. So was it generally with the various reformers with whom Salt consorted and corresponded, Tolstoi, Gandhi, and many another, and of whom he wrote, such as Shelley and Thoreau. In this connection Mr. Winsten writes: “There is one thing which differentiates vegetarianism from every other movement: one cannot be a vegetarian in theory only.”

Salt's quiet, unobtrusive character and his urge to write on subjects and about people not in popular favour is sufficient to account for the fact that he remained unknown to the general public, but, as the reader of this biography will find, his unusual capacity for friendship and affection, his inherent culture, sanity and charm and his directness of purpose, attracted to him “Prime Minister and Poet, Scientist and Philosopher, Peer and Peasant, Naturalist and Dramatist, Prophet and Politician, and they all found in him the inspiration they needed.”

The idea that the answer to pauperism was the philanthropy that produced such a glow of satisfaction in the Victorian well-to-do has been disposed of by Socialism, but it fell to Henry Salt and the Humanitarian League that he founded to dispose of the related fallacy that the remedy for exploitation of animals was kindness to animals, which generally amounted to indulging in the self-gratification of keeping a domestic pet. Salt’s book, Animals' Rights, dealt with this, causing a considerable flutter in the dovecotes of belief and dogma. His last book, The Creed of Kinship, may be said to sum up his matured and considered views. In an address read at his funeral—written by himself for that purpose—he says, “And when I say that I shall die as I have lived, rationalist, Socialist, pacifist and humanitarian, I must make my meaning clear. I wholly disbelieve in the present established religion; but I have a very firm religious faith of my own—a Creed of Kinship, I call it—a belief that in years yet to come there will be a recognition of the brotherhood between man and man, nation and nation, human and sub-human, which will transform a state of semi-savagery, as we have it, into one of civilisation.”

Salt and His Circle is an engaging book. It contains many interesting photographs of famous people in the “circle” and some hitherto unpublished letters including one from Shaw to Henry on the occasion of the death of Kate Salt; a poignant letter showing the great man startled out of his acting and writing from the heart.

If you want to read about a group of people who refused to be “Mute zanies of a witless fate,” about, for instance, Socialism when that idea was feeling its way from the state of idealism to that of practical politics, about many interesting and amusing people and episodes, get this book.

John Davies

The Vegetarian News, 1951, pp. 124-126